MerseyRail’s new Headbolt Lane station opened on 5 October 2023, representing an extension of approximately 0.75 miles from the previous terminus at Kirkby. How did the system develop and why was this new terminus chosen as the boundary of the system? What does the future hold and how does MerseyRail fit into the local and longer distance transport network of the Liverpool area? In the first of three articles I look at the development of the railway network in Liverpool that laid the foundations for the network and services we have today.
A railway history of Liverpool and environs
The railway network of Liverpool is very strongly linked to that of Manchester. Close trading links between the two cities gave impetus to the promotion and construction of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway.
The earliest railway in the world to rely exclusively on steam locomotive power with double track throughout, it opened on 15 September 1830 to a Liverpool terminus at Crown Street, though extended to the present day Lime Street terminus in August 1836 when Crown Street was deemed to be too far from the city centre. This route still remains in use today as a principal main line between the two cities and electrified in stages between 2013 and 2015.
The original L&M Railway company’s success inspired many other railway schemes but for Liverpool and the north west two of the most important were the London and Birmingham Railway (opened in 1837) and the Grand Junction Railway which linked this with the L&M at Earlestown and also opened in 1837.
Together with the Manchester and Birmingham Railway, these three lines formed the core of what is now the West Coast main line between Manchester/Liverpool and London Euston. The companies formally combined in 1846 to create the London and North Western Railway (LNWR); a major player in UK Victorian railway affairs.
Victorian railway alliances
To counter the hegemony of the LNWR in the north west, the Midland Railway, the Great Central Railway (GCR) and the Great Northern Railway (GNR) – all of whom had ‘core territory’ somewhat removed from the Manchester/Liverpool area – pooled their resources to create the Cheshire Lines Committee (CLC; something of a misnomer as most of its network was in what was then Lancashire).
In 1873 the CLC opened what is now the other major Manchester-Liverpool route via Warrington Central. Originally operating from Manchester Central station to Liverpool Central (High Level) closure of both these stations has seen it diverted at both ends to serve Lime Street and Manchester Piccadilly.
A third Manchester-Liverpool route was started by the Liverpool and Bury Railway in 1845 but by the time it opened in 1848 the L&BR had merged with other companies to form the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway (LYR) with a route that ran from Castleton Junction on the Manchester Victoria – Rochdale line via Bury Knowsley Street, Bolton Trinity Street (the modern day Bolton station) and Kirkby to Liverpool Exchange station.
Up to the early 20th Century the LYR competed on this less direct route by offering premium ‘club trains’ to Manchester. We shall discuss the significance of this line later as it forms a key part of the modern day MerseyRail network.
The East Lancashire Railway had opened a line from Liverpool Exchange via Ormskirk to Preston in 1849. The ELR became part of the LYR in 1859 and this route served as the LYR’s principal route to Cumbria and Scotland. This line was severed at Ormskirk in May 1970 with the western section now being part of MerseyRail from Liverpool.
The Mersey Railway – Mersey estuary east bank and Liverpool
A key component of Liverpool’s rail network was an ambitious project, the Mersey Railway, to tunnel under the Mersey and connect Liverpool with Birkenhead directly. Opened in January 1886, the Liverpool terminus was at an underground station beneath the CLC’s Liverpool Central High Level station – platforms that are still used today. The railway initially used steam traction and unheated carriages on the grounds that the longest journey on its system was under 15 minutes. However, the steam traction fumes in the Mersey Tunnel drove passengers back to the slower Mersey ferries and the railway was bankrupt by 1900.
Salvation came from American entrepreneur George Westinghouse, who had recently opened a UK branch of his engineering company and was looking to promote his wares. Westinghouse offered to electrify the Mersey Railway and it reopened after a deep clean with new electric trains and then-novel electric lighting in mid-1903.
Overhead line electrification was considered but clearances within the Mersey Tunnel were too tight and so a 600V fourth rail system using an energised conductor rail set 22” from the running rail and a return (earth) rail was adopted. This choice had a major impact on the rest of the Liverpool suburban rail network.
The Mersey Railway extended its system through construction of a further tunnelled link to Birkenhead Park in 1888 connecting with the Wirral Railway and extended its original line to Rock Ferry in 1891 to connect with the Birkenhead Joint Railway. A key problem, even after electrification, was that the Wirral Railway had not electrified its lines and so passengers had to change trains at Birkenhead Park for through journeys: an issue that was not addressed until 1936.
The Mersey estuary west bank
The Great Western Railway (GWR), with its unique 7’ 0.25” ‘broad’ track gauge, had long coveted access to Liverpool and began pushing north with the Oxford, Worcester and Wolverhampton Railway of 1852. Victorian railway politics ensured the dream of ‘broad gauge to the Mersey’ died at Stafford Road Junction just north of Wolverhampton. From there the GWR proceeded northwards as a standard gauge 4’ 8.5” line and it took over the Chester and Birkenhead Railway jointly with the LNWR on 1 January 1860. Birkenhead was as close as the GWR’s rails ever got to Liverpool itself; it had a warehouse in Liverpool which was never rail-connected.
Both goods and passengers had to cross the Mersey to the GWR/LNWR joint Birkenhead Woodside station via through ticketing arrangements to gain access to the rest of the GWR network, including Birkenhead-London Paddington services. The C&BR became known as the Birkenhead Joint Railway post-takeover. It opened a branch from Hooton to Helsby via Ellesmere Port in 1863 and this section later became part of MerseyRail.
The Hoylake Railway of 1863, authorised to construct an east-west line from Birkenhead docks to Hoylake across the northern end of the Wirral Peninsula, eventually constructed branches to Seacombe, West Kirby and New Brighton. It underwent a number of name changes before it was taken over by the Wirral Railway Company Ltd in 1884 after flirting with insolvency since 1870 when the population of the area was too small to support enough passenger traffic to pay off its construction debts. The Wirral Railway system was eventually electrified, save for the Seacombe branch, in 1936-38 and through running to Liverpool via the Mersey Railway and Mersey Tunnel could finally commence.
A further line through the centre of the Wirral peninsula was opened in May 1896, ultimately becoming fully owned by the GCR. It is the modern day Borderlands Line between Bidston and Wrexham; since it did not become part of MerseyRail it is only mentioned for completeness’ sake.
North to Southport
The rapid growth of Southport in the 19th Century as a tourist attraction made it a target for railway promoters. The Liverpool, Crosby and Southport Railway opened in July 1848 and was taken over by the LYR in 1855, the same year they opened the Manchester and Southport Railway via Wigan to Manchester Victoria station. Both terminated at Southport Chapel Street station (the present day Southport station).
The LYR had a monopoly on rail transport to the resort until 1879 when the CLC opened the North Liverpool Extension Railway from Hunts Cross via West Derby to Aintree Central. The CLC-promoted Southport and Cheshire Lines Extension Railway extended this to a separate Southport Lord Street station in 1884.
The LYR electrified its Liverpool-Southport line in 1904 using third rail technology. The independent West Lancashire Railway opened a direct Southport-Preston line in 1882 (acquired by the LYR in 1897) that was electrified to Crossens station in 1904 – effectively extending the Liverpool-Southport scheme by a few miles as Crossens was, by this time, a busy commuter centre for Southport itself.
The Liverpool Overhead Railway
One oddity in the context of Liverpool’s history is the Liverpool Overhead Railway (LOR). This elevated railway, some 16 feet above the waterfront streets of Liverpool, opened in 1883 and was the first elevated railway in the world to operate using electric traction. It was a very efficient rapid transit system and crucial in transporting Liverpool dock workers to their places of employment throughout both World Wars.
The LOR remained independent throughout its life and never formed part of British Railways. By the mid-1950s it was found to be suffering from severe corrosion to its wrought iron girder supports and decking. Although the owners appealed to various sources for funding to repair this, none was forthcoming. With the costs of repair being beyond the means of owners of the LOR it was closed effective 30 December 1956 and demolished the following year. Very few traces remain today.
Major changes befell the entire UK (and Ireland) rail network after the First World War and we shall discuss these and their effect on Liverpool in the next article in this series.